WASHINGTON -- Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader who lost a primary bid Tuesday for re-election, was a reliable "yes" vote for increasing the H-1B visa cap.
Cantor lost to challenger David Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College with a Ph.D. in economics -- and an opponent of the H-1B visa.
Brat's victory doesn't signal a reversal in bipartisan support in Congress for increasing the number of H-1B visas. Cantor saw the visa program as an area for bipartisan agreement, and he was on solid ground in saying so.
The Senate's bipartisan immigration bill, approved last year, would more than double the H-1B cap, increasing it from 85,000 to 180,000 annually. The fight over immigration has focused more on providing a path to citizenship for the approximate 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., not on raising the H-1B visa cap.
Few candidates in either party draw attention to the H-1B visa in their races. But Brat used the H-1B against Cantor.
In one statement, Brat wrote: "The Chamber wants low-skilled cheap labor; Mark Zuckerberg wants high-skilled cheap labor, but, at the end of the day, what they have in common is that they all want cheap labor and Eric Cantor wants to give it to them."
It's hard to know whether Brat's use of the H-1B visa, by itself, made much a difference in this contest or whether it will encourage others to attack the visa program.
Facebook's Zuckerberg is an active supporter for increasing the H-1B cap, and helped to create a lobbying group, FWD.us. In the wake of Cantor's defeat, the group put the best spin it could on Cantor loss by pointing, in a Twitter message, to a Public Policy poll ( download PDF) that assessed voter support on various issues in Cantor's district. On the subject of immigration, when asked about providing eligibility for a path to citizenship, 40% of the respondents strongly support, and 32% somewhat supported.
Cantor, and other Republican leaders, reached out to the tech industry, and believed that a free market ethos and message was in synch with Silicon Valley's start-up culture. In a 2011 speech at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, Cantor talked about creating a better environment for start-ups with tax and regulatory reform.
That same year, Cantor and his fellow so-called "young guns," U.S., Rep. Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chair, and Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip, appeared with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, at a town hall meeting that was streamed live.
Tech-related contributions to Cantor in the 2014 election cycle totaled $82,000, far below securities and investment industry contributors, who sent in $677,000 and real estate contributions that totaled $268,000.
Cantor's largest tech contributor was Oracle, which sent $25,000.
The fate of the H-1B visa cap has been tied to the broader issue of immigration reform, where there are much larger divisions. This has thwarted efforts by lawmakers to treat the H-1B visa as a separate issue and to raise the cap independent of comprehensive immigration reform.
Without a doubt, the tech industry lost one vote for an H-1B cap increase with Cantor's defeat, and Brat's win may kill any chance of immigration reform in this Congress. But Brat's attack on the H-1B program doesn't necessarily mean that other Republicans, who have backed a cap increase, will reconsider their support for the temporary work visa, and abandon the tech industry on what may be its top issue.
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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